The English Alphabet – Definition and History
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The modern English alphabet is a Latin-based alphabet consisting of 26 letters – the same letters that are found in the Basic modern Latin alphabet:
|Majuscule Forms (also called uppercase or capital letters)|
|Minuscule Forms (also called lowercase or small letters)|
The exact shape of printed letters varies depending on the typeface. The shape of handwritten letters can differ significantly from the standard printed form (and between individuals), especially when written in cursive style. See the individual letter articles for information about letter shapes and origins (follow the links on any of the uppercase letters above).
Written English also uses a number of digraphs, but they are not considered to be part of the alphabet.
The English language was first written in the Anglo-Saxon futhorc runic alphabet, in use from the 5th century. This alphabet was brought to what is now England, along with the proto-form of the language itself, by Anglo-Saxon settlers. Very few examples of this form of written Old English have survived, these being mostly short inscriptions or fragments.
The Latin alphabet, introduced by Christian missionaries, began to replace the Anglo-Saxon futhorc from about the 7th century, although the two continued in parallel for some time. Futhorc influenced the Latin alphabet by providing it with the letters thorn (Þ þ) and wynn (Ƿ ƿ). The letter eth (Ð ð) was later devised as a modification of dee (D d), and finally yogh (Ȝ ȝ) was created by Norman scribes from the insular g in Old English and Irish, and used alongside their Carolingian g.
The a-e ligature ash (Æ æ) was adopted as a letter its own right, named after a futhorc rune æsc. In very early Old English the o-e ligature ethel (Œ œ) also appeared as a distinct letter, likewise named after a rune, œðel. Additionally, the v-v or u-u ligature double-u (W w) was in use.
In the year 1011, a writer named Byrhtferð ordered the Old English alphabet for numerological purposes. He listed the 24 letters of the Latin alphabet (including ampersand) first, then 5 additional English letters, starting with the Tironian note ond (⁊) an insular symbol for and:
- A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z & ⁊ Ƿ Þ Ð Æ
In the orthography of Modern English, thorn (þ), eth (ð), wynn (ƿ), yogh (ȝ), ash (æ), and ethel (œ) are obsolete. Latin borrowings reintroduced homographs of ash and ethel into Middle English and Early Modern English, though they are not considered to be the same letters but rather ligatures, and in any case are somewhat old-fashioned. Thorn and eth were both replaced by th though thorn continued in existence for some time, its lowercase form gradually becoming graphically indistinguishable from the minuscule y in most handwriting. Y for th can still be seen in pseudo-archaisms such as “Ye Olde Booke Shoppe”. The letters þ and ð are still used in present-day Icelandic and Faroese. Wynn disappeared from English around the fourteenth century when it was supplanted by uu, which ultimately developed into the modern w. Yogh disappeared around the fifteenth century and was typically replaced by gh.
The letters u and j, as distinct from v and i, were introduced in the 16th century, and w assumed the status of an independent letter, so that the English alphabet is now considered to consist of the following 26 letters:
- A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
The variant lowercase form long s (ſ) lasted into early modern English, and was used in non-final position up to the early 19th century.
The ligatures æ and œ are still used in formal writing for certain words of Greek or Latin origin, such as encyclopædia and cœlom. Lack of awareness and technological limitations (such as their absence from the standard qwerty keyboard) have made it common to see these rendered as “ae” and “oe”, respectively, in modern, non-academic usage. These ligatures are not used in American English, where a lone e has mostly supplanted both (for example, encyclopedia for encyclopædia, and fetus for fœtus).
Diacritic marks mainly appear in loanwords such as naïve and façade. As such words become naturalised there is a tendency to drop the diacritics, as is now often the case with the two mentioned; but, automatic spell-check, as in Microsoft Office, also often adds the diacritics back in, which has slowed their disappearance in recent years. Words that are still perceived as foreign tend to retain them; for example, the only spelling of soupçon found in English dictionaries (the OED and others) uses the diacritic. Diacritics are also more likely to be retained where there would otherwise be confusion with another word (for example, résumé rather than resume), and, rarely, even added (as in maté, from Spanish yerba mate, but following the pattern of café, from French).
Occasionally, especially in older writing, diacritics are used to indicate the syllables of a word: cursed (verb) is pronounced with one syllable, while cursèd (adjective) is pronounced with two. È is used widely in poetry, e.g. in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Similarly, while in chicken coop the letters -oo- represent a single vowel sound (a digraph), in zoölogist and coöperation, they represent two. An acute, grave or diaeresis may also be placed over an ‘e’ at the end of a word to indicate that it is not silent, and to show how it should be pronounced instead. These devices, are, however, optional, and are in practice not used even where they would serve to alleviate some degree of confusion.
The & has sometimes appeared at the end of the English alphabet, as in Byrhtferð’s list of letters in 1011. Historically, the figure is a ligature for the letters Et. In English it is used to represent the word and and occasionally the Latin word et, as in the abbreviation &c (et cetera).
The apostrophe, while not considered part of the English alphabet, is used to abbreviate English words. A few pairs of words, such as its (belonging to it) and it’s (it is or it has), were (plural of was) and we’re (we are), and shed (to get rid of) and she’d (she would or she had) are distinguished in writing only by the presence or absence of an apostrophe. The apostrophe also distinguishes the possessive endings -‘s and -s’ from the common plural ending -s, a practice introduced in the 18th century; before, all three endings were written -s, which could lead to confusion (as in, the Apostles words).
The names of the letters are rarely spelled out, except when used in derivations or compound words (for example tee-shirt, deejay, emcee, okay, aitchless, wye-level, etc.), derived forms (for example exed out, effing, to eff and blind, etc.), and in the names of objects named after letters (for example em (space) in printing and wye (junction) in railroading). The forms listed below are from the Oxford English Dictionary. Vowels stand for themselves, and consonants usually have the form consonant + ee or e + consonant (e.g. bee and ef). The exceptions are the letters aitch, jay, kay, cue, ar, ess (but es- in compounds ), wye, and zed. Plurals of consonants end in -s (bees, efs, ems) or, in the cases of aitch, ess, and ex, in -es (aitches, esses, exes). Plurals of vowels end in -es (aes, ees, ies, oes, ues); these are rare. Of course, all letters may stand for themselves, generally in capitalized form (okay or OK, emcee or MC), and plurals may be based on these (aes or As, cees or Cs, etc.)
|F||ef (eff as a verb)||/ɛf/|
|W||double-u||/ˈdʌbəljuː/ in careful speech|
|Y||wy or wye||/waɪ/|
Some groups of letters, such as pee and bee, or em and en, are easily confused in speech, especially when heard over the telephone or a radio communications link. Spelling alphabets such as the ICAO spelling alphabet, used by aircraft pilots, police and others, are designed to eliminate this potential confusion by giving each letter a name that sounds quite different from any other.
The letters A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y are considered vowel letters, since (except when silent) they represent vowels; the remaining letters are considered consonant letters, since when not silent they generally represent consonants. However, Y commonly represents vowels as well as a consonant, as very rarely does W. (See Words without vowels.)
The letter most frequently used in English is E. The least frequently used letter is Z.
The list below shows the frequency of letter use in English.
- Anglo-Saxon futhorc
- English language
- English spelling reform
- History of the English language
- Latin-derived alphabet
- Greek alphabet
- ^ See also the section on Ligatures
- ^ a b Michael Everson, Evertype, Baldur Sigurðsson, Íslensk Málstöð, On the Status of the Latin Letter Þorn and of its Sorting Order
- ^ Sometimes /æ/ in Hiberno-English
- ^sometimes in Australian and Irish English, and usually in Indian English (although often considered incorrect, particularly in Britain)
- ^ in Scottish English
- ^ /ɔr/ (/ɔər/?) in Hiberno-English
- ^ in compounds such as es-hook
- ^ Especially in American English, the el is not often pronounced in informal speech. (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed). Common colloquial pronunciations are /ˈdʌbəjuː/, /ˈdʌbəjə/, and /ˈdʌbjə/, as in the nickname “Dubya”, especially in terms like www.
- ^ in British and Commonwealth English
- ^ in American English
- ^ in Scottish English
- ^ Beker, Henry; Piper, Fred (1982). Cipher Systems: The Protection of Communications. Wiley-Interscience. p. 397. Table also available from Lewand, Robert (2000). Cryptological Mathematics. The Mathematical Association of America. p. 36. ISBN 978-0883857199. http://books.google.com/books?id=CyCcRAm7eQMC&pg=PA36. and